Amtrak president Joe Boardman and New Jersey Senators Lautenberg and Menendez plan to stand up today at the Newark Hilton and announce a “Gateway Tunnel” between New Jersey and Manhattan. They’ll propose to build the new tunnel by largely following the footprint of Access to the Region's Core, or ARC, a rail link under the Hudson River that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed in October for projected cost overruns.
Construction on ARC had already begun. Gateway Tunnel would pick up where that project left off—with key differences.
Like ARC, Gateway would consist of a pair tunnels with one track each. But its capacity would be less. ARC was set up to carry 25 commuter trains per hour. Gateway would be designed to allow an additional thirteen New Jersey Transit Trains and eight more Amtrak trains per hour.
And whereas ARC was supposed to terminate at platforms under Macy’s, a block east of Penn Station, Gateway would end a block to the south, nearer to street level. The block—West 30th and West 31st Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues—now mostly holds small businesses like restaurants, bars and a repair shop for musical instruments.
A staff member for an elected official familiar with the project said Amtrak, which is taking the lead on the tunnel, would have to assemble properties on the Manhattan block to make it feasible. He said on the New Jersey side, Gateway would use a hole that construction crews had already started digging for the ARC Tunnel at Tonnelle Avenue near Secaucus.
Amtrak is estimating it will take 10 years and $13.5 billion dollars to complete the project.
An important part of the work would be to raise the Portal Bridge, a notorious bottleneck between Kearny and Secaucus over the Hackensack River. Trains must now slow to cross the 100 year-old bridge, or stop altogether while it is moved to let boats pass by. A modernized bridge, along with a new tunnel’s added capacity, would speed up Amtrak’s service along the Northeast Corridor and help set the stage for future high-speed rail.
The Gateway announcement is sure to set off a round of fearsome politics.
Amtrak and the two U.S. Senators will essentially be proposing their tunnel as an alternative to an extension of the 7 subway train from Midtown Manhattan to Secaucus, which the Bloomberg administration has been pushing—and on which it just voted to spend a quarter of a million dollars for an engineering study. Will Bloomberg push back, contending the 7 train extension would be cheaper?
What will Governor Christie have to say? He and Senator Lautenberg have traded contemptuous barbs since Christie killed ARC in October.
Will the Gateway announcement affect the Federal Transit Administration’s demand that New Jersey pay back $271 million of federal funds spent for preliminary work on ARC, which Christie and his DC law firm, Patton Boggs, is fighting? One of the arguments Patton Boggs has made is that ARC-related design work and research is proving useful to other public works projects. Therefore, it needn't be refunded. If Gateway moves forward in ARC’s tracks, would Christie’s case against the FTA be strengthened?
Former Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Chairman Anthony Coscia, now on the Amtrak board of directors, is expected to join in today’s announcement. Will he nudge the deep-pocketed Authority to line up behind Gateway?
And as always, who will pay for it? If the project’s backers manage to find enough funds without pinching a single penny from New Jersey’s depleted coffers, will Governor Christie support the tunnel—holding his nose, perhaps, while crouching next to Senator Lautenberg as they each wear a hard hat and stick ceremonial shovels into the ground?
These questions and more will be raised this week, a week that the Obama Administration plans to devote to promoting infrastructure. And that raises one last question. Will Democratic Senators Menendez and Lautenberg boost their new rail initiative by prevailing on the president to express support for it, or at least say the words, “Gateway Tunnel,” in a speech? We’ll see.